On the Road had been on my to-be-read list for many years. Just the title itself is attractive, conjuring up images of my own experiences of the road, watching the world from behind a window. From childhood, every summer, my family and I drove from the UK, across Europe to our homeland in the Balkans. This yearly pilgrimage inspired a love of the road in me. From the unnerving flat lands of Belgium, past the gloriously dark forests of Germany at night, and the heavenly, looming peaks of Austria, I knew the road could bring untold mystery and opportunity. Ever since, I’m always happiest when going somewhere, starting a journey. So I think I projected my own experiences and desires onto what I thought that this book should be like, what it should be about.
When it arrived in my post box, I delved straight in. And then I pretty much hit a brick wall.
In short, On The Road is the story of Sal Paradise, a struggling writer in New York (*sigh – they’re always struggling, and they’re always in bloody New York*) who yearns for the open road, the endless highway and finally takes the leap thanks to his generous (and in my mind, long suffering) grandma. Throughout the book Sal takes a number of journeys back and forth across America and finally, years later, taking a journey with his best friend (and prime idiot) Dean Moriarty through Mexico. This sounds like it could be great, right?
It’s not. First of all, it was difficult to get into. A few pages in and I’d started thinking about what was for dinner that day or, even worse, my to-do list at the office. The writing seemed disjointed, clunky. I appreciate that Kerouac’s writing style is intentionally like this, and is a post WW2 response to the conservative America of the war years . Maybe it’s just a matter of personal preference but, for me, the story just didn’t flow.
Next, I really took issue with the content. I had anticipated adventures, a rich plot, the stuff that bourbon and 1950s jazz are made of (and that’s what the blurb on my Penguin copy promises!) But it was all a bit of an anti-climax. The first trip across America is pure boredom. Sal left New York City for this? Miserable hitch hikes with little food and no fun? When he eventually hits San Francisco, Sal mulches around a bit with his idiotic friends. There are a few similar cross American trips like this in the book, back and forth, and I forget how many times Sal does it because they all blend into one. Sure, he and his friends go out, get wasted a lot, but they’re just drunk idiots. It’s not enlightening or paving a new lifestyle. They’re just grown men and women who never actually grew up. Yeah, I hate Sal’s friends.
The characters are all awful. I really didn’t like anyone. I mean, there’s plenty of books I’ve read where the characters are despicable but interesting and likeable. Here, they’re all just annoying, self obsessed idiots who are totally hapless at life. They’re all terrible friends and worse parents. Each of them is infected with this horrendous attitude of being completely selfish, being capable of abandoning their child and wife to drive across the country to pick up an equally selfish friend to just drive about a bit more with no purpose whatsoever. And I’m really not criticising people who choose not to take root or settle down. I think it’s inspiring and brave to travel the world, live on the road, and in the right circumstances, take your children along for the ride. But these hapless idiots aren’t enviable world travellers, they’re just wasters.
Perhaps I’m missing the point? And there will be staunch defenders of the book. I don’t profess to know very much about Beat culture so maybe I would appreciate On the Road more if I learnt about it. But I wanted to be inspired here, wanted to taste that freedom, almost feel the wind in my hair as I went along for the ride. I think the problem is me. I think I wanted this to be travel writing, when really, it is a lifestyle guide for those wanting to break free from society’s constraints. So maybe it is my fault, but I really wanted to learn about America, feel the atmosphere of 1950s night life in NYC, jazz bars in New Orleans and the roars of the pacific by San Francisco. Instead, On the Road left me with my feet firmly on the ground and my imagination still very much in Northern England.